Asset Forfeiture: The Risks of Traveling With a Large Sum of Cash

 In Criminal

How Innocently Carrying a Large Amount of Cash Can Result in Asset Forfeiture and Seizure

Imagine you are driving to make a big purchase — maybe to buy a new car or make a down payment on a house — and you are stopped for a minor traffic infraction. You start to panic because you realize you have a large amount of cash in your vehicle. If the cash you are carrying was obtained through legal means and you are not on your way to or from a crime, should you be nervous? After all, it is not illegal to carry money that you legally obtained, right?

Welcome to the world of asset forfeiture. Even though it is technically not illegal to travel with large amounts of cash, it is definitely suspicious to many law enforcement officers.  In fact, carrying a large amount of cash can result in asset forfeiture and seizure, even if you are not arrested for an offense.

How does Asset Forfeiture work?

Forfeiture is a judicial construct where the government pursues the outright taking of private property on the basis that it is linked to crime.  There are two bases most commonly used to seize and forfeit property. First, the Government may try to establish that targeted property is ill-gotten gains (proceeds) of crime. In the alternative, it could allege that property, like a vehicle, is used to aid (facilitate) a crime. Obviously, forfeiture is designed to take away the motivating factor for crime, which is greed. In fact, administrative, civil, and criminal forfeiture recoveries have resulted in the growth of the DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) which had a net balance of more than 2.5 billion in 2014. By the way, the Treasury Department has its own asset forfeiture fund known as the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture (TEOAF). It also has hundreds of millions of dollars.

The legal bases for forfeiture in the federal system exist in 18 U.S.C. 924, 981 and 982 as well as certain portions of Title 19 (Customs) and Title 21 (Drugs).

In addition to federal forfeiture efforts, state government entities are also able to take assets if they were derived from illegal activity. In Texas, civil forfeiture is provided for in Article 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Interestingly, in Texas, property subject to forfeiture is called contraband.

Clearly, the idea of depriving criminals of their ill-gotten gains is an honorable one. However, it can become problematic because courts do not require direct proof of a known crime to forfeit property.

Going back to the traffic stop. If you find yourself in that situation, how will you prove that the money you have is legitimate? Will the police believe you and just give it back?

How does property unrelated to any criminal activity get seized and forfeited?

Law enforcement agencies routinely seize and forfeit property and funds without any definitive proof of a crime or connection to criminal activity. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, they are able to do this without ever charging the owner with a crime. As a result, this process is sometimes abused and the hard earned assets of innocent citizens are forfeited to the government because they are intimidated into giving up the assets.

First, forfeitures are not criminal actions but civil actions. Theses lawsuits are unique because they are actually brought against an object, such as a vehicle or currency, rather than an individual. This means the defendant is the actual object the government is seeking to forfeit, and not the person whom the object was taken from.

Because civil asset forfeiture has a lower standard of proof than a criminal action, it is much easier to forfeit money without definitively proving it was obtained from criminal activity. In fact, to get seized assets returned, the owner — not the government — is usually required to prove that the assets are not connected to criminal activity.

The government uses civil asset forfeiture as an important tool in the war on drugs to seize assets involved in the narcotics trade such as cash, weapons, vehicles and other property acquired from the proceeds of illegal drug sales or involved in facilitating illegal drug activity. Unfortunately, this process is subject to abuse and the victims are often law-abiding citizens.

People who have had their property seized for forfeiture have the right to make a claim and demand the return of their property and should do so as soon as possible or the property will be forfeited to the government by default. See 59.02-59.06 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and 18 U.S.C. 983.

Abuses by law enforcement in regards to civil asset forfeiture

Unfortunately, the ease by which the government is able to take assets from citizens under the civil asset forfeiture laws makes it a system that is readily subject to abuse by certain agencies or individuals. There are numerous reports around the country of law enforcement officials abusing their civil asset forfeiture powers and targeting innocent citizens, scaring them into giving up their cash.

An infamous example of this occurred in the small Texas town of Tenaha, located on the interstate from Houston to Louisiana. Law enforcement there were engaging in a scheme that targeted minorities, mostly African Americans, and intimidated them into giving up their assets. Police were pulling over travelers passing through the town and threatening to bring felony money laundering charges if they did not sign over their assets.

From 2006 to 2008, officials in Tenaha seized property such as vehicles, cash, phones and jewelry without ever bringing charges in almost 150 different cases. Innocent families and grandparents were among those targeted and forced into giving up their assets because they could not adequately explain how they came to be in possession of the assets.

Understand that once your assets have been seized, you typically have a small amount of time to file your claim after receiving a Notice of Seizure and Intended Forfeiture, so you must act fast or you will lose your assets automatically. Under 983 and Art. 59.02-59.06, citizens typically have around 30 days to claim their property. If they fail to do so, then the property goes to the government entity by default. Most assets are forfeited by default.

Carrying a large amount of cash can result in asset forfeiture. Here’s some tips to follow when traveling with large amounts of cash.

Many people are shocked to learn that carrying a large amount of cash can result in asset forfeiture. Since many law enforcement agencies are literally on the prowl for private property during traffic stops, there are a few suggestions for those traveling so they might avoid the loss of their assets.

  1. Do not travel with a large sum of cash if you can help it. Most officers and prosecutors do not believe people live outside the banking system. Some of this is pro-law enforcement bias and some of this is cultural unfamiliarity with segments of the population that typically live outside the banking system. Some people just use check cashing establishments instead of opening an account. Given the issues with asset forfeiture, people may want to use the banking system as much as possible and avoid carrying large sums of cash. As a corollary, wire money to loved ones if possible. That would avoid such vulnerability.
  2. Do not package money in certain ways. Do not put money in baggies. Do not coat baggies with some substance that will presumably mask a scent.
  3. Do not lie about having the money. This is a massive factor within a forfeiture trial. Go ahead and admit to an officer if he or she asks if you’re traveling with a large sum of money.
  4. If you recently withdrew the money from a bank account take a withdrawal receipt with you. This oftentimes provides critical timing evidence that is critical to establishing claims and certainly will potentially reflect negatively on the seizing officer for discounting such evidence.
  5. Do not conceal money. Use of trap doors or other concealing mechanisms while the vehicle is in motion is a sure fire way to get property seized. If you are driving, then simply keep it within a bag or suitcase. Use of trap doors to secrete money while driving signals that your use of the door is not meant to protect the money from would be thieves but rather that the trap door is to avoid law enforcement detection. Officers and agents automatically assume efforts to keep things and/or information away from them constitutes guilt.
  6. Have clear travel plans. Know where you are going and who you have been staying with. Oftentimes people travel and stay with a loved one’s friend or family member. Unfortunately, officers will ask drivers who they have been staying with recently. Answers like “I’m not sure” won’t cut it. Even though there is no law against failure to know your innkeeper, officers don’t have to prove a known specific crime. They simply need to articulate circumstantial facts that are consistent with drug dealing to seize your money. Don’t give them ammunition. Know your recent and intended itinerary.

Other important tips include the following:

  • Avoid packaging cash in plastic bags or with rubber-bands
  • Avoid carrying large amounts of cash in your pockets.
  • Never conceal the money in places which would be suspicious to law enforcement such as the trim of the vehicle or in hidden compartments 
  • Never store money with drugs or other contraband.
  • Never keep cash in open view, when in your vehicle.

Contact us today.

If you have had cash seized at any United States airport or while traveling, contact us immediately:

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